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Praise Must Outshine the Ordinary

Simmons Buntin reviews Brightwood: Poems and The Hollow Log Lounge: Poems by R.T. Smith

image, Brightwood: Poems by R.T. SmithWhen I studied poetry under R.T. Smith at Auburn University, I remember the clear distinction he drew between music and poetry. “Music,” he said matter-of-factly, “is not poetry.” What he meant is that lyrics from music are not poetry. As a young student of poetry, unpublished and just beginning to learn about the craft of poem making, I found this hard to believe.

So I challenged my teacher, leaving class that afternoon on a mission. That evening, I sifted through what seemed hundreds of song lyrics—those printed on album sleeves—and listened to dozens of songs I was sure, from memory, were as good as poetry. And therefore were poetry.

But when it got right down to it—despite how beautiful I find the lyrics in U2’s song “Running to Stand Still” from the album The Joshua Tree to be, I found that Smith was correct. Music is not poetry.

So is the adverse also true? Is poetry not music?

Flex and tap, the scuffed toe drags,
while a poor-will in the treeline
adds his sad notes to the dobro,
and even the river is charmed to pick up the drone,
for what, after all, is beauty if not this moving
wildly while nearly standing still?

R.T. Smith’s poem “Flat-Footing, Summer Evening, Rockbridge County, VA” would have us believe otherwise. Indeed, the verse appearing in Smith’s two newest collections—The Hollow Log Lounge, published by University of Illinois Press in 2003, and Brightwood, from Louisiana State University Press in 2004, in which the poem above appears—set meter, pitch, tempo, and beat. They are music; and more clearly perhaps because their subject is music so often.

image, The Hollow Log Lounge: Poems, by R.T. SmithWhat defines Smith’s poetry historically, in addition to its powerful music sense, is the strong, related sense of character that creates a true time and place. These collections, and especially The Hollow Log Lounge, continue that tradition. “Pick It, Squirrel: Steve Gresham Sees the Light” gets us seeing the light, as well:

Not even the fiddler can play this nimble.
You’ve got the fire and down-home sizzle
in service to life swirled in live-wire frenzy,
saying praise must outshine the ordinary,
as if being on the trail to bliss were easy.

True to life, however, Smith’s poems give evidence that there is more to our existence than music; that life can be far meaner, as in Brightwood’s “Hazard,” about a man recently divorced who discovers halfway through bringing down a sweetgum by axe “with every stroke, and soon I knew I was mistaken.” At the end of his task, at the end of the winter day, he concludes:

The world, or just the road to town, seemed safer then,
the possibility of sleet or snow less treacherous,
but I could find no reason, take no pride
in what I had done and walked home to a cold hearth
at the center of an empty house where promises,
once breached and torn, could not be unbroken.

At the Hollow Log Lounge in Opelika, Alabama, life is just as mean—more visceral—and each character has a unique story to tell, each revealing a simple truth: while there may be more to life than music, it’s still the stuff that elevates us, whether it’s Tanya Tucker on the jukebox or a has-been country star getting bounced out of a bar, as in “A Putative Country Star Rebukes His Exit Escort.”

Music plays through the poems as it plays through our memories, often in strange and always in revealing ways. Take the Lounge’s silent Cadmon Dabney after a poker night, where “Wild card blind, double-down, or bluff, / my heart was never in the game.” Slipping out to the barn, settling into autoharp tunes, it suddenly becomes dark:

I saw my breath take on a shape.

It was weird and rising, a man so bright
I knew he hailed from another place,
and he said, “Sing, Cad, you’re no mute.

While we may continue to search for poetry in music, there’s no need to search for music in poetry. It’s all here, as it always has been, in the sweet, Southern voice that Smith seeds in his characters from the first line of each well-crafted poem.

Throwing the Coachman

After the angler has tied his knots—
the surgeon's, the clinch, the turle—
he reads the water's voice again
for stone and moss and rifle,
then aims for the surface swirl.

He casts the royal coachman—
white wings and russet hackle,
pheasant tippits and peacock herl—
to feign the nymph and summon
rainbows from a shadow world.

And if beside the ruined mill
this August evening nothing
is feeding, and nothing is in his creel,
at least he's knee-deep
in a living river, and he can feel

the furling current dragging his steel
hook and feathers toward a spill
of whiter water. The world
is shimmery with the pleasures
of what if, and when he bends

to taste the rushing riffle,
the swimming moccasin is far
from thought and just out of sight.
In streamside pines a torrent
of cicadas spieling summer

repeat the urgent ratchet of his reel.

From Brightwood: Poems; originally published in Quarterly West. Reprinted with permission of R.T. Smith.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Brightwood: Poems

by R.T. Smith

   Louisiana State
   University Press
   January 2004
   ISBN 0807128988




The Hollow Log Lounge: Poems

by R.T. Smith

   University of Illinois
   August 2003
   ISBN 0252028627



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